December 28 marks one year having passed since the death of Naverone Woods, a 23-year-old First Nations man who was shot and killed by transit police at a grocery store in Surrey.
On the phone from Hazelton, B.C., one of two Interior towns where Woods grew up, sister-in-law Tracey Woods said the family is still waiting for answers.
“We just want to have some kind of closure,” she explained. “And to know that there was an investigation done, that this case wasn’t just pushed aside.”
Tracey, whom a neighbour described as “like a stepmother” to Naverone, said she has questions about what efforts were made to deescalate the situation before force was deemed necessary, and why guns were used at all.
“We always compare it to a big grizzly bear that they will shoot, put to sleep, and relocate,” she continued. “How come they couldn’t use a Taser or something rather than drawing their weapons?”
Woods was the eighth British Columbian to die in a police-involved incident in 2014, according to a database maintained by the Georgia Straight. So far in 2015, that number stands at 11, the most for any year since 2009.
Last February, the Straight reported that a stark pattern emerged from an analysis of dozens of deaths involving B.C. authorities dating back to 2007: of 99 police-involved deaths investigated by the B.C. Coroners Service or scheduled for investigation, 90 percent involved a mental-health component, substance abuse, or both.
Now a review of that database updated for 2015 reveals another pattern: as deaths have increased, so has the frequency with which guns were involved in those incidents.
In 2015, there were seven fatal police shootings in B.C. That was up from five the previous year, two in 2013, four in 2012, five in 2011, three in 2010, and seven in 2009.
Six of those seven shootings in 2015 involved the RCMP. That compares to two during each of the years 2014, 2013, and 2012, and four in 2011, three in 2010, and five in 2009. Fatal RCMP shootings were geographically dispersed across the province. One exception is Surrey, where RCMP officers have shot and killed seven people since 2009.
Josh Paterson, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said that, to an extent, the data simply speaks for itself.
“These numbers suggest a doubling of police-involved deaths in the last three years in B.C.,” Paterson told the Straight. “The number of people shot and killed by the RCMP have risen to the highest level in over 10 years. While these numbers don’t allow us to draw a conclusion as to why this is happening, they raise an alarm and require us to ask hard questions.”
The B.C. RCMP and the B.C. Ministry of Justice refused to grant interviews.
Steve Schnitzer is the police-academy director for the Justice Institute of B.C. He called attention to courses that focus on crisis intervention and deescalation tactics and how best to respond to emergencies involving a mental-health component. Those lessons were made mandatory in 2012 following the 2007 death of Robert Dziekański at Vancouver International Airport and the subsequent Braidwood Commission of Inquiry.
“That is a policing standard now,” Schnitzer emphasized. “It [training] changed significantly after the Braidwood commission report came out.”
Statistics compiled by the coroner’s service suggest that there is still room for improvement. According to the organization’s annual report for 2010, just 40 percent of coroner’s recommendations related to police-involved deaths were adopted by the agencies involved in those incidents (2010 being the most recent year for which such statistics were included).
Doug King, a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, said there is one factor that can make all the difference in how a police encounter plays out: time.
“There is a huge correlation—based on our work and what we see—with police-involved shootings and first responders,” he said.
King explained that when police officers fire their guns, the weapon is almost always discharged by an officer who was first on the scene and during the first few minutes of a confrontation.
“To me, that indicates there needs to be better training and a greater emphasis on what someone can do to contain an individual until help can arrive,” King said.
The death of Naverone Woods remains under investigation by the Independent Investigations Office of B.C., a public body created in 2012 to examine police incidents involving death or serious harm. Once that review is complete, the case will likely proceed to the coroner’s service.
King said that investigation is one of three he’ll be watching in 2016.
The second, he continued, is that of Phuong Na (Tony) Du, who was killed by Vancouver police at the corner of Knight Street and East 41st Avenue in November 2014. The third is Hudson Brooks, a 20-year-old male who was shot by Surrey RCMP in July 2015.
“These three shootings are all really problematic, from what we’ve heard, and really beg explanations,” King said.